The Rockcity Welfare Association has been helping thousands of needy students in Tiruchi get a head start in higher studies with its book bank

Diamond Bazaar in Tiruchi promises to be a place full of, well, precious rocks. But there’s something even more priceless meticulously coded and stacked in alphabetical order in this busy lane of jewellery showrooms and gemstone merchants. This is the book bank run by the Rockcity Welfare Association (RWA), that has helped over 18,000 needy college students since 16 years.

A 50-strong group whose members are mostly north Indian businessmen, RWA (now registered as a trust) had tried its hand at other social initiatives like free food distribution and blood donation drives before focusing on the education sector in 1998, says Mr. Ashok D. Gandhi, chairman of the book bank since its inception.

“We were inspired by the Rajasthan Youth Association of Chennai that has been maintaining its book bank project for the past 50 years,” says Mr. Gandhi, who is also a dealer in synthetic diamonds and other gem stones. “[Giving text-books] is better than giving money to poor children because it might make them lazy or it may get misused. With the book bank’s help, they can study on their own and learn to be self-reliant and support their families after graduation.”

Shortlist of students

Around 1500 undergraduates from arts and science courses are enrolled with the book bank every year. From 2013, the RWA has extended its reach to engineering colleges as well, with 100 students from five institutions already on the rolls.

The programme shortlists academically bright students based on the recommendations of college faculty and Plus Two exam results. Each potential member is then interviewed by an RWA committee before the finalist is announced.

“We have had to turn away many students because of fund constraints,” says Mr. Gandhi. “But this year, we have received a cash boost of Rs. 3 lakhs from our local Member of Parliament Mr. P.Kumar, that has enabled us to serve engineering students as well.”

Syllabus headaches

Once registered, the student receives the prescribed text-books free of charge that have to be returned at the end of the semester. With the constant changes in syllabus, maintaining updated book lists is a challenge.

“Very often the students request our library staff for specific texts, which we try and procure for them. We also keep reviewing our lists,” says Mr. Gandhi.

The problem gets a little more complicated when it comes to engineering courses, says Mr. Gandhi, as the colleges here prefer to prescribe text-books by local authors which are costlier than the standard texts recommended by the Anna University. “It’s an irony that that the local author text-books cost more, even though publishers sell them at a discount to the colleges,” says Mr Gandhi. “Most first-year students are forced by college managements to buy the text-books at a hiked rate.”

Maintaining the stock

A set of six to seven text-books given to each student costs around Rs1500 for arts and science courses. Engineering course books are costlier, and RWA is anticipating to spend around Rs.2000-2500 per student. A text-book has a ‘shelf life’ of around seven to eight years.

What happens when books get damaged? “We collect book-binding charges from the student,” replies Mr. Gandhi. “If the book is lost, we ask the student to buy a new copy for us.”

Electronic books, already making inroads in publishing abroad, are not yet on the RWA’s radar, says Mr. Gandhi. “E-books are being used only in a few engineering colleges in India, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing to beat the hardbound text-book.”

The organisation’s website has helped garner interest from the public, particularly from those who want to donate their old books. “For local donors, we collect the books personally from them, while those from outside Tiruchi can send theirs by post.” But RWA prefers not to shop for books online, because the discounts are nominal when compared to traditional book publishers.

Knowledge repository

We visit the book bank’s premises a short walk down from Mr. Gandhi’s office in Diamond Bazaar. Currently housed in a building that was previously a lodge, the library is looked after by two staff who are also in charge of computerising the book lists periodically.

“Right now we are maintaining only hard copy files of our students, because we don’t have the budget for full-scale digital conversion,” explains Mr. Gandhi.

The RWA also recognises the efforts of its students by felicitating those beneficiaries who have done well in exams. Colleges with the most number of book bank toppers are also given a rolling trophy.

Future plans include courses that will offer soft skills training and vocational guidance to needy students. English fluency courses and job placement assistance are also being mulled.

“Many times, children from a poor family background have no parental authority in their life — for such kids, even attending college is a very difficult thing to do. Our books are a boon for them,” concludes Mr. Gandhi.

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